Cross-Linguistic Sound to Meaning Mappings in Spatial Relational Terms


Previous research has identified systematic sound-to-meaning mappings (sound symbolism) in words for object size, shape, and surface lightness. In the present study we investigate whether sound is used systematically in spatial relational terms in 17 languages, and whether native English-speaking individuals can determine the meanings of these terms. In a forced-choice task, participants were asked to choose the correct English translation for each unfamiliar foreign word. All items were spatial terms with either proximal or distal meanings (translations of English 'here', 'there', 'near', 'far', 'this', 'that'). Participants nominated the correct meanings of the words significantly above chance, suggesting that they used sound structure to infer meaning. Acoustic analyses were conducted to examine the relation of acoustic properties to word meaning, as well as to listeners’ judgments. The findings suggest that the sound structure of language can be systematically used to mark relational meanings related to space.

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